April 16, 2001

Kosovoís Grassy Knoll
A helicopterís downing requires more explanation


On Monday 9 April, two British helicopter pilots were killed on a routine surveillance mission in Kosovo. Bad weather had forced an emergency landing, which went wrong meaning the helicopter crashed into the mountains. The Ministry of Defence insisted that there were "no indications whatsoever that hostile action was involved".


Here the story should end. Two British servicemen died in a foreign country where British interests were not involved. This may be a scandal, but in our desensitised times we seem to think that only two deaths are quite good. However there are a number of disturbing points in this story, and although the Ministry of Defence version is plausible, it is by no means the only version of the story that is plausible. It is perfectly possible that the pilots were the first casualties in a new war, where Britain fights the KLA.


The first thing that jars is that the British Ministry of Defence is quite adept at blaming helicopter crashes on the incompetence of the crews, if the truth turns out to be more inconvenient. The most famous example of this was a Chinook crash over the Mull of Kintyre. This crash, which largely wiped out the counter-terrorist intelligence capability in Northern Ireland, was at first blamed on the pilotsí gross negligence, and this was upheld in an internal investigation. This verdict was not accepted by the dead pilotsí families, who campaigned for an independent inquiry, saying that the equipment was faulty. Very few people now believe the official line, with even a defence minister of the time calling for a re-evaluation. Why was the defence hierarchy so insistent on the pilotís negligence? Many think that this was because the Ministry of Defence was keen to avoid blame for buying faulty equipment. If the Ministry of Defence were capable of a cover up in order not to admit to a mistake in choosing their supplier, would they be equally keen to cover up a mistake in choosing their ally?


Did the Kosovo Liberation Army have the means, motive and the opportunity to shoot down the helicopter? Firstly the means. This is simple; the KLA had access to stinger missiles and other anti-aircraft equipment from 1998.


And the motive? Surely, the KLA would have no motive to shoot down their erstwhile liberators? How about Macedonia? The region where the aircrew was shot down, Kacanik, is on the border with Macedonia. The border is to most of the people of Kacanik a trifling legality, as a British major in the area said:

These areas are populated with people related to each other, and they have always been moving back and forth over these hills due to the different seasons.

The area is a highly important strategic area, if the KLA is to support its Macedonian offshoot. The British troops recognised Kacanikís pivotal importance of the border when they were preparing for an invasion from Macedonia. This major highway of arms shipments to the Albanian militants in Kosovo was a natural place for British troops to monitor, if they were serious about stopping the Albanian rebels arming. Similarly, there was a natural desire for the Albanians to be unmonitored. What better way to stop the monitors than by shooting them down? After all, KFOR troops have already been shot at.

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What was the KLA opportunity? Kacanik is a stronghold of sorts for the KLA. It was 98.5% Albanian before the war, which in practical terms meant that it was homogenous. It is also very poor, with most of the people relying on subsistence agriculture, with a scattering of small scale quarrying. Although some ethnic Albanians formed militias to fight the KLA, this was more an extension of the clan warfare endemic in the region. The terrain, and the willing civilian help that the KLA can rely on in this area, means that they can operate with impunity in many parts of Kacanik.


The official explanation, as far as there is one, is perfectly plausible. The puma helicopters may be all weather helicopters, and the crew may be skilled and experienced, but the weather in the area was atrocious. Puma helicopters, like any other, have been known to crash in bad weather (although less frequently than other aircraft). All this is within the realms of possibility. I am however troubled by the Ministry of Defenceís statement:

The circumstances surrounding the crash will be the subject of a full investigation, but there are no indications whatsoever that hostile action was involved.

This particular "full investigation" looks like it will be limited by the political considerations of a government facing an election. As Iíve said before, our troops in Kosovo are in reality now hostage to the KLA, and helping Macedonia fight the Albanian guerrilla action will result in British deaths. Is there really no indication that hostile action was involved?

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